(story originally published, Sept., 2016)
On Saturday, Scottish-based and international brewery, BrewDog, unveiled a look at their first North American brewery, located just outside of Columbus, Ohio, to their throng of fans that are involved in the “Equity For Punks” membership program. Technically, I can’t actually be considered a voyeur since I curiously had been invited inside, but there still was an uneasy sneakiness that I felt throughout the day.
For those that are unfamiliar with BrewDog, partners James Watt and Martin Dickie, are perhaps the largest and most successful homebrewers-gone-pro in the world. Their beer is distributed in 74 countries and they are the stars of the hit television show, “Brew Dogs,” the masterfully produced beer show with jaw- dropping engineering.
Because of their unique and fun-loving, and sometimes irreverent (I mean, who uses stuffed roadkill for bottle koozies of rare beer?) personalities, people might think the BrewDog partners are more like a present day Milli Vanilli. Yeah, they sound good together in public but do they really do the work?
The duo’s sometimes high-jinx shenanigans might lead those folks to think BrewDog slipped on a banana peel, kicked over a grain bucket into a mash tun, hit some valves while they fell and accidentally started brewing beer. Simple warning: Do not let their comedic charm fool you. These guys are geniuses. Who brew delicious beer.
Watt and Dickie were tired of the “faceless, generic, multi-national, monolithic, industrial corporations” that turned out “G***** awful” beer so they became simple homebrewers, dreaming of something larger. And different. But brewing beer they wanted to drink did not immediately translate into large beer sales.
Peddling their beer here and there with slow success led to securing a bank loan, and later, they received a monumental deal with U.K. uber-supermarket chain, Tesco, after finishing 1-thru-4 in a beer competition. Trouble was, it was deal so large they couldn’t live up to it because they simply did not have enough space to brew the beer.
Needing more equipment, another visit to the Bank of Scotland went James for an additional loan but the bank was rather unimpressed. So he marched into HSBC Bank like John Dillinger, except without guns and a gang, and basically held them up. He told them he had just secured a loan with the Bank of Scotland and offered them the opportunity to do the deal with him. And they did.
Next, showing off their business acumen, BD started the “Equity For Punks” program which allows participants worldwide to purchase a stake in the business, along with receiving valuable membership benefits.
Once described by Watt as, “The ultimate incarnation of our philosophy”, this community-sourcing opportunity is tinged with marketing brilliance that has enabled them to re-invest in the company, while creating a large band of punk evangelists eager to spread the word throughout the world.
So, of all places in the United States, heck, North America, why did BrewDog choose Columbus, Ohio? Not that there’s anything wrong with it. Ohio is an awesome and intelligent beer state and Columbus, specifically Canal Winchester, is a wonderful area, but it does beg the question: Of all the beer joints on the continent, why here?
Well in part, maybe it’s this. In 2014, after a lengthy search to build a new brewing facility eastward, BrewDog friends Stone Brewing, chose Richmond, Va. over broken-hearted Columbus. One particular roadblock might have been Ohio’s ABV beer cap of 12%.
Anyone who brews “the world’s strongest beer” at 55% ABV, readily sees this as a problem. Fortunately, it seemed that it was the right time for the law to be changed, it seemed to have the right advocate with beer-friendly Ohio Governor John Kasich, and it was the right place for BrewDog to move.
In an unfinished office inside BrewDog’s brand new Ohio facility is where I spoke with James Watt, while I sipped on my first ever Elvis Juice IPA. (Co-founding partner Martin Dickie remained home while expecting the birth of a child). But before he starts, remember when I threw out that word “genius”? Check out this resume.
- Qualified deep sea captain
- Honors degree in law and economics
- Established BrewDog Brewing Co. with Martin Dickie in 2007
- Named 2010 Scotland Business of the Year
- 2014/2105 Great British Entrepreneur of the Year
- Became Europe’s first Master Cicerone
Q. When do you expect your beers in Ohio to hit the market?
James Watt- “So, the project is slightly delayed because of the delay of the German equipment. We are looking to start making fresh test batches sometime in late January, so the date the beers come out will depend a little bit with the equipment schedules, and how well the test batches go. So, March 2017, hopefully all will go well.”
Q. Do you have any plans for collaborations in Ohio?
JW. “At the moment, no. Just our main focus is to start making our own beer in Ohio before we start doing collaborations. We’ve always loved doing collaborations and there’s so many good breweries here in Ohio, so I’m sure we’ll do some things but we haven’t got in front of that, such as yet.”
Q. I’ve seen some of your past talks about the “Culture Loop”. So moving into a new country, how do you plan to be a part of the Ohio, or the Columbus culture?
JW. “Well that’s something that’s so important to us, just to focus on both will be to focus on community. The U.S. has a fantastic craft beer market but no one else has this business model that we have where people that love our beer can own part of our business. For us that’s always been the cornerstone of building our community. It’s having people out there like today, they’re super passionate about what we do and actually owning an equity stake in our business, and that’s getting started in building our community and culture right here. So anyone can go to our website [brewdog.com] and spend five dollars and they can own a piece of our company. It’s different from other types of crowdfunding that’s been done in the U.S. like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Here you buy equity in our company. And on top of that you get advantages like discounts, invites to days like today with the Equity For Punks event.”
Q. I know that you are very good friends with the folks at Stone Brewing, who flirted about coming here to Columbus. Did you have discussions with Stone and did they suggest Columbus to you?
JW. “Yeah! Definitely! We love the guys at Stone and Greg Koch (Stone Brewing co-founder and CEO) is a friend of mine. They were so generous in sharing some of their information, so that when they were looking at Columbus, the fact that we’re here definitely has a large part to do with Stone’s help and potentially also a large part to do with the fact that Stone didn’t come here themselves (laughs)!! I tell Greg every time I see him, ‘I’m happy that you looked at Columbus but I’m very happy that you didn’t come here because it meant that we could come.’”
Q. Talking about the TV show, are there plans for another season?
JW. “Yeah, we’re actually in talks and discussions but nothing has been confirmed yet.”
Q. With New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, Stone, and breweries like that, how do you see yourselves in position with them, or is that something you don’t consider?
JW. “These guys are all fantastic companies. Sierra Nevada was an inspiration for us to start making beer at home. They all make fantastic beers that I like drinking, but business…Martin and I don’t tend to focus too much on what other people are doing and focus on what we’re doing. We’re brewing beers that we like to drink, and we focus on the people and on the Equity For Punks community.”
Q. And the Equity For Punks program, could you touch on that a little bit?
JW. “Yeah for us it’s so, so important. I think that so many breweries have sold out to the big guys in the last couple of years. From Ballast Point to Golden Road, to Lagunita’s to Elysian, I mean the list goes on and on. And for us, what we love about Equity For Punks is our business is owned by people who are as passionate about fantastic beers as we are, and that means we can continue to over-invest in making great beers, and we can continue to over-invest in our people and our team, but help this community come on this journey with us. And part of this journey is the work what we do. They’re not just investors. They are ambassadors. They’re advocates who are the heart and soul of our business. This is something we use very much to drive our U.K. business with our almost 50,000 Equity For Punks investors. For us, we didn’t just want to come to the U.S. with our beers, we wanted to come with our entire philosophy. And that philosophy involves the community of beer lovers across the U.S.”
Q. Now that you have become “legitimate”, is there a part of you that misses out on the fun of lying to banks?
JW. “(Laughs). Anyone who has a established a small business will know that you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, just to keep that business alive for the first couple of years. You’ve got to put everything on the line for what you believe in, you’ve got to take some gambles, you’ve got to do some things that are conventional, some aren’t.
“A lot of that just to get your business up and established. Definitely I do miss the hustle and bustle of the start up. I like to think the way we do things, of the start-up mentality, is still very key to our culture. Like the decision to spend a million dollar investment in Columbus after spending 24 hours here is very much past our fun edge. We don’t tend to overthink it.”
Q. What is the ties that bind beer and people? What is it that brings them together, the commonality?
JW. “I think the beer is the cornerstone of civilization going back thousands of years. I don’t know, it just seems to be kind of in the deep human psyche and that’s why it’s been so frustrating to see what the big corporations have done for the last 40-50 years. Something that is so fantastic and all of those common denominator commodities seemed to go through a drying spell. And then the craft beers started growing in the U.S. and started going global, and then kind of chipped away at Big Beer just a little bit. The craft beer movement, the U.S. is ahead of everyone but in the U.K., we’re showing signs are that we’re going to catch up and catch up quickly. That’s happening in Scandinavia, that’s happening in Japan. For us, we’ve got so much inspiration from the U.S., the beer scene is the catalyst for this global movement, so for us to come full circle to come to the U.S. to make our beers, is something we’re really happy we decided to do.”
(Proving a commitment to excellence, BrewDog announced recently that all 700 of their employees have achieved Certified Beer Server status and many are Certified Cicerone’s).
BrewDog launches tonight in Indianapolis at MacNiven’s at 5:00, and The Sinking Ship at 7:00.